Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Zen people are assholes
Once there was a temple that was destroyed by fire; its great library was completely destroyed. Priests from a nearby shrine came to the great temple concerned about the loss of ancient Tang and Sung dynasty texts. The master told them, 'None of them have been harmed'. 'Where are they then?' one of the priests asked doubtfully; 'Would you show us the Tang edition of the Mahavairochana sutra?' The master held up one hand. The priests didn't know what to make of this, but another one asked to see the later translations of the Lotus Sutra. Again, the master held up one hand. He said, 'The covers were burned, but you can still hold the texts in your hand'.
That was one of the first koans I heard at Wind in Grass. When it came to the discussion, everyone put their interpretive pennies into the hat. When the Zen bug (which preceded the disembodied Buddha head) came to one hipster girl though, she just put up her hand. She looked kind of pissed off. Later on I got to know her better when she ended up being up at retreat the first time I went to one. Before you eat a meal on retreat there's a weird ritual where a plate is passed around every table and everyone puts a morsel of food on it. Then one person from each table takes the plate up to the altar and offers the food up. The whole while everyone in the room is muttering a dark twisted form of grace in which we invoke all the demons and hungry ghosts, asking them to take our food and be at peace. One of the first times I was involved in this I took a particularly plump raspberry and put on the offering plate. A few seconds after the rite had been concluded the girl whispered harshly over at me, 'I can't believe you gave a whole fucking raspberry to the hungry ghosts! They don't even exist!'
Zen people can be assholes. I don't mean that in a complaining way; it's just something I've noticed and appreciated. It's part of what makes me feel at home at Wind in Grass, since there's a certain normality there. The hipster girl told me how she'd been on a vipassana retreat for a whole month once. It had changed her permanently and made her happy and all that, but one of the things that stuck in her mind was that it was impossible to go through doorways, because whenever you tried there'd be a smiling Buddhist on the other side inviting you to go through first (at which point you'd obviously have to smile back and insist that the smiling Buddhist go through before you). That doesn't seem to be a problem at Zen retreats. I was definitely intimidated by some of the people I saw at my first retreat, but then I got to know them better, and now they just scare me.
Ultimately, the practise is about compassion (like all true religious paths, perhaps). But there's a lot of emphasis at the outset on authenticity, too: you never get the impression that people have plastered smiles on their faces, which has sometimes been my suspicion at meditation events of different persuasions (not that having a smile plastered on your face isn't better than having most other things plastered on your face). If you're pissed or randy or distraught, the Zen prescription seems to be to just be pissed off or randy or distraught (and maybe: notice that you're pissed or randy or distraught). Don't criticize yourself for it. After a while you'll realize that being pissed, randy, and distraught are all fine states of mind to be in, and you won't be so desperate to change your state of mind or the state of the union. And from below the surface of that equanimity compassion will bubble up naturally.
That's my understanding of the teaching at this point, and I don't like it all that much. (So my understanding may still be imperfect, or the teaching may just be crap.) But it does raise an interesting and obvious point about Buddhism: that's it's a capacious and varied set of practices, and it shouldn't be surprising that different emphases in terms of the ethics will lead to practitioners who react differently when they meet each other at doorways. This also links up with the recent posts on meditation and neuroscience, since it's often amusing to me to read of studies that show how 'meditation' has this or that effect in the brain. What kind of meditation? Often they'll stipulate it's 'Buddhist meditation'. Thanks. (My former teacher Mike Hagerty's work is an exception in this regard, often describing in detail the particular type of meditation that's being studied).
It's pretty obvious, though, that different types of mental exercise will lead to the development of different features of personality, just as different physical exercises lead to the development of different muscles in the body. That actually seems to be one of the starting assumptions of lots of meditative practices: people who do metta for example, are aiming partly to cultivate a generous attitude that will issue in right deeds and good action. So it's no surprise that meditators who concentrate on an object of meditation will develop a certain one-pointedness, and that Zen types who just fucking sit for hours at a time will become increasingly badass. I don't want to emphasize this too much, since in the end there seems to be something common to all types of meditation which just grants you peace in an unpredictable way (maybe in the way that all types of exercise make you feel slightly better somehow). But it's worth noticing, and worth bearing in mind: be careful what you sit for.